Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In the Slums, by the Rev. D. Rice-Jones, 1884 - Chapter 13 - Behind the Scenes

[back to main menu for this book]




THE woman and the baby form a striking picture in that dreadful den. They are both as dark as gipsies, and look as if they had gipsy blood running in their veins. And who knows? It may be that the unconquerable aversion always shown by this poor creature to the habits of civilised life is the outcome, not of intellectual imbecility, but of her wild gipsy nature re-asserting itself. She is not a drunkard, and she is certainly not an idiot; nor in Conversing with her can I detect any symptoms of insanity. What then is it that has always, as far as I have been able to ascertain, made it impossible for her husband or any one else to raise her above the state in which we now find her? For the only difference between the present circumstances of the family and its normal state is, that the room has been cleared of some worthless rubbish, and at the same time of much filth, while instead of their being only half starved, the scanty supply of food has been entirely stopped, and the cold shelter of [-73-] an empty garret in a deserted house is about to be taken away from them.
    The woman has no gown on her back. Above the waist she is clad in what appears to me to be nothing but a few loose rags, fastened together with pins and string, while the black stuff petticoat that hangs from her waist seems to be in imminent danger of dissolving into rags. As if, however, to make up for the extreme meagreness of her clothing, she has a profusion of jet-black hair, which hangs in dishevelled masses down her back, and partly covers her cheeks. But both her hair and her whole appearance give one the impression that she must long ago have given up the use of soap and water, not to speak of such things as hair-brushes and combs. She says she has had eleven children, five of whom were carried off at one time by fever; and although she only acknowledges to having six children now at home, I have a strong suspicion that seven, if not eight, sleep with their parents in that small room.
    For while I am waiting there, five children come in together from the street, making six with the baby. Then presently a black-eyed girl of fourteen walks into the room, and in reply to the question, "Is this your eldest daughter?" the mother, taken by surprise, says, "No, we have another older than this one, but she doesn't live at home."
    [-74-] Picture to yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, the scene which I have now vainly attempted to describe to you - that small, loathsome garret, with no other furniture in it but a couple of old orange-boxes; no fire in the grate; no bread to eat; not even a jug to fetch a little cold water to drink. The mother, dandling in her arms a half-naked baby; and all those ragged, famishing children standing round in a semicircle; while the unhappy father of the family stands behind them in helpless bewilderment. Try to picture to yourselves this scene of unspeakable wretchedness and woe, and then tell me what I am to do, if you can. How am I to help this miserable family?
    You will tell me perhaps that it is impossible to help such a family, and that the only thing to be done with them is to compel them to go into the workhouse; and I admit that you may be right. But if the parents will not go into the workhouse, who is to compel them? And if through the obstinacy of the parents these poor children die of privation and want - what then? Will the responsibility rest upon the parents alone? I cannot help feeling that I for one shall have to answer to God for those poor innocent children, if, knowing their condition, I refuse to do what 1 can to lighten their sufferings. And so, for the moment, I fling my political economy to the winds, end supply the [-75-] family with enough to keep them from starving for the next four-and-twenty hours. But this does not quite end the scene.
    As I am about to leave the room, the door opens, and another person enters upon the scene; an aged woman with white hair and wrinkled face. Like the mother of the children she too is without a gown on her back, and her chest is bare almost as far as the waist, while her short petticoat leaves her naked feet and ankles also exposed.
    "Sir," she says, speaking with a strong Irish accent, "for thirty years I have been known in the market" (Covent Garden), "portering there every day from four or five in the morning till late at night; and though I am now seventy-five years of age, I have had to be out in the wet all day since five o'clock this morning. And if it had not been for a dear lady, that knows me, giving inc a shilling to make up the rent, I should have been turned out of my little room too. So I can feel for these poor Unfortunate people; and I have been standing at the door, and know what you have come for, and"-
    Here the poor old woman paused for a moment. Then falling on her knees at my feet, she raised her clasped hands above her white head, and looking up, exclaimed, "May the Lord Almighty prepare a place for you in heaven!" And in that position she remained until I withdrew from the room. This [-76-] old woman lives by herself in the back attic, a room about six feet square, with paper panels to the door, which she secures when she goes out by means of a small padlock, which, as she has since told nine, she herself bought for twopence. The rent of the small hole in which she lives is two shillings and twopence, while that of the front garret is four shillings, a week.
    The case of Hardup and his family still remains under consideration; therefore I cannot say what will become of the family. But I have thought it well to give a statement of time case as it stands, for the following reasons. It proves:-
    1. That strong drink, though undoubtedly the cause of most of the misery in this country, is not the only cause.
2. That laziness and a want of cleanliness may reduce people to a state of poverty and degradation not less painful than that caused by drunkenness.
    3. That teetotalisrn, per se, is not a cure for all the ills that flesh is heir to, although it may be a great help towards evangelizing the masses.
    But lest the motive and aim of these inferences should be misunderstood, I must be allowed to add that I myself am a total abstainer of many years' standing, and that, for the sake of example to my poor people, I have even gone so far as to adopt the blue ribbon. Therefore I can hardly be suspected of prejudice against the temperance movement.